Hapax Legomena and the value of expertise for Bible Study

When words appear only once their meaning often remains unclear

Gilgamesh Tablet

“Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.” – Gen 6:14 (AV)

What was gopher wood? That was one of my first questions asked after reading the flood narrative in the AV, and I remember being quite annoyed when I found out that no one really knew. Even the word gopher  was simply a transliteration of the Hebrew גֹּפֶר which while attesting to the honesty of the AV translators was still quite unsatisfying. Some translations1 translate it as ‘cypress wood’ though acknowledging in the margin that the Hebrew is uncertain, while others2 follow the AV in transliterating the Hebrew as gopher.

Commentaries are not that much more useful, with the JPS Torah commentary arguing for cypress because of its use in ancient shipbuilding and a similarity of sound in the Hebrew,3 while the NIV Application Commentary speculates that it was “probably from the cypress tree, but that is uncertain since this is the only occurrence of the word sometimes translated ‘gopher.'”4 Gordon Wenham in the Word Biblical Commentary (Genesis) points out the diversity of opinion among ancient commentators and translations while noting both the uncertainty of meaning and the fact the word occurs only once in the Bible.

The word occurs only here in the OT. The identity of this tree is uncertain. Tg. Onq. understands it to be “cedar,” whereas LXX translates it “squared” timber, and Vg, “smoothed” timber. Modern commentators usually suppose some sort of conifer suitable for shipbuilding must be meant.5

‘Gopher’ is an example of a hapax legomenon, a word other than a proper name that occurs only once in a book.6 Statistical studies show that hapax legomena will occur in any book, so their occurrence in the Bible is entirely expected.7 The problem they pose for Biblical interpretation, particularly in the Old Testament is that the main source for Classical Hebrew is the Old Testament, a problem that is not quite as acute in New Testament studies as it was written in Koine Greek, for which numerous extra-Biblical texts exist.

Further compounding the problem for understanding Hebrew hapax legomena are the existence of what some have called absolute hapax legomena which are not related to any other Biblical words, thus making it difficult to infer their meaning by context and related Biblical words. For books of the Bible which have a higher than normal number of hapax legomena, this among other factors can make interpretation difficult.

Another factor that makes the first Isaiah hard to understand is its use of many rare words. A large number of those words appear only once in the whole Bible. (Scholars call such words hapax legomena, a Greek expression meaning “unique words.” We often use the term hapax for short, as I will below.) Recall that context is one of our major guides for what words mean… Therefore, when words appear only once—so that we have only one example of how they are used—their meaning often remains unclear. This is why the JPS translation has so many footnotes in Isaiah saying “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”8

You don’t have to be multilingual to appreciate that languages are related to each other. For example the German for father and mother are Vater and Mutter, which are cognate terms with their English counterparts. Languages related to Hebrew include Aramaic, Arabic, and extinct languages such as Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Phoenician. This provides one option to try to infer the meaning of hapax legomena by comparative philology, though as the highly respected Biblical scholar Moises Silva notes with considerable understatement, “but care must be taken not to abuse this method.”9 One of the reasons for this is that “[w]hen dealing with a hapax legomenon it must be remembered that even it has a Hebrew context and that although it may occur only once in BH, it may be attested elsewhere in the CH corpus. As with any other word, this should be investigated prior to the application of comparative philology.”10

Certainly, comparative philology is not something that the average person is able to do given the need to have mastered multiple languages as well as have expertise in linguistics, which is where appeal to modern scholarship comes into play. This is particularly so in the Old Testament where the relative scarcity of extra-Biblical Hebrew literature to cast light on Biblical hapax legomena – a problem nowhere near as pressing for New Testament studies – requires the use of comparative philology as part of the arsenal in trying to understand these words.

In concluding, the existence of Hebrew hapax legomena poses an interesting problem for an extreme theory of inspiration, namely the dictation theory, which posits that God dictated every word into the minds of the writers, who were merely dictation machines for the holy spirit. Closely related to the dictation theory of inspiration is a flat literal hermeneutic which assumes (without ever properly justifying the assumption) that the plain literal reading of the text should be privileged.

The problem with these views on inspiration and interpretation can be clearly seen with Hebrew hapax legomena. Why would God use words that occur only once in the entire Old Testament, knowing that the modern day reader would not have the extra-Biblical knowledge of ancient Hebrew that the original audience had, but is now lost? Arguing that every word was dictated implies that every word is important, but if a modern audience has no way of knowing what the original word meant, then both the dictation theory of inspiration, and the flat literal hermeneutic which depends on knowing what all the words mean in order to read the text literally are faced with a considerable challenge.

The hapax legomena problem is of course relative – the general narrative is hardly cast into doubt because of their existence. What they do remind us of is the importance of extra-Biblical material and external scholarship to assisting in rightly dividing the word of truth.


  2. ESV, NASB, Tanakh
  3. Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 52. Sarba, despite his confidence that gopher wood was quite likely a conifer concedes that the wood was an “otherwise unknown type.”
  4. John H. Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 311–312.
  5. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (vol. 1; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 172–173.
  6. Greek: ‘something said once’.
  7. Frederick E. Greenspahn, “Hapax Legomena,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 55.
  8. Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 162.
  9. Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Revised and Expanded Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 34.
  10. Susan Anne Groom, Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew (Carlisle, Cumbria; Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2003), 70.

Author: Kenneth Gilmore

Ken is a Brisbane-based medical practitioner whose interests include Syro-Palestinian archaeology, Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Second Temple Judaism, Historical Jesus studies, and cats.